An alternative tool for detecting underground nuclear explosions?
By Dorota A. Grejner-Brzezinska, Jihye Park, Joseph Helmboldt, Ralph R. B. von Frese, Thomas Wilson, and Jade Morton
Well-concealed underground nuclear explosions may go undetected by International Monitoring System sensors. An independent technique of detection and verification may be offered by GPS-based analysis of local traveling ionospheric disturbances excited by an explosion. Most of the work to date has been at the research demonstration stage; however, operational capability is possible, based on the worldwide GPS network of permanently tracking receivers. This article discusses a case study of detecting underground nuclear explosions using observations from GPS tracking stations and the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico.
More than 2,000 nuclear tests were carried out between 1945 and 1996, when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Signatory countries and the number of tests conducted by each country are the United States (1000+), the Soviet Union (700+), France (200+), the United Kingdom, and China (45 each). Three countries have broken the de facto moratorium and tested nuclear weapons since 1996: India and Pakistan in 1998 (two tests each), and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2006 and 2009, and most recently, in 2013.
To date, 183 countries have signed the treaty. Of those, 159 countries have also ratified the treaty, including three nuclear weapon states: France, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom. However, before the treaty can enter into force, 44 specific nuclear-technology-holder countries must sign and ratify. Of these, India, North Korea and Pakistan have yet to sign the CTBT, and China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States have not ratified it.
The treaty has a unique and comprehensive verification regime to make sure that no nuclear explosion goes undetected. The primary components of the regime are:
- The International Monitoring System: The IMS includes 337 facilities (85 percent completed to date) worldwide to monitor for signs of any nuclear explosions.
- International Data Center: The IDC processes and analyzes data registered at IMS stations and produces data bulletins.
- Global Communications Infrastructure: This transmits IMS data to the IDC, and transmits data bulletins and raw IMS data from IDC to member states.
- Consultation and Clarification: If a member state feels that data collected imply a nuclear explosion, this process can be undertaken to resolve and clarify the matter.
- On-Site Inspection: OSI is regarded as the final verification measure under the treaty.
- Confidence-Building Measures: These are voluntary actions. For example, a member state will notifying CTBTO when there will be large detonations, such as a chemical explosion or a mining blast.
The IMS (see Figure 1) uses the following state-of-the-art technologies. Numbers given reflect the target configuration:
- Seismic: Fifty primary and 120 auxiliary seismic stations monitor shockwaves in the Earth. The vast majority of these shockwaves — many thousands every year — are caused by earthquakes. But man-made explosions such as mine explosions or the North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013 are also detected.
- Hydroacoustic: As sound waves from explosions can travel extremely far underwater, 11 hydroacoustic stations “listen” for sound waves in the Earth oceans.
- Infrasound: Sixty stations on the surface of the Earth can detect ultra-low-frequency sound waves that are inaudible to the human ear, which are released by large explosions.
- Radionuclide: Eighty stations measure the atmosphere for radioactive particles; 40 of them can also detect the presence of noble gas.
Only the radionuclide measurements can give an unquestionable indication as to whether an explosion detected by the other methods was actually nuclear or not. The observing stations are supported by 16 radionuclide laboratories.
Since radionuclide detection method provides the ultimate verification as far as the type of blast goes, it should be mentioned that while the 2006 North Korean event (yield of less than a kiloton) was detected by the IMS stations in more than 20 different sites within two hours of detonation, and both seismic signal and radioactive material were detected, the 2009 event (yield of a few kilotons) was detected by 61 IMS stations; seismic and infrasound signals were detected, but no radioactive material was picked up by the radionuclide stations. Seismic signal was consistent with a nuclear test, but there was no “ultimate” proof by the radionuclide method.
Thus, well-concealed underground nuclear explosions (UNEs) may be undetected by some of the IMS sensors (such as the radionuclide network). This raises a question: Is there any other technology that is readily available that can detect and discriminate various types of blasts, particularly those of nuclear type? Recent experiments have shown that an independent technique of detection and verification may be offered by GPS-based analysis of local traveling ionospheric disturbances (TIDs) excited by an explosion.
Atmospheric effects from mostly atmospheric nuclear explosions have been studied since the 1960s.The ionospheric delay in GNSS signals observed by the ground stations can be processed into total electron content (TEC), which is the total number of electrons along the GNSS signal’s path between the satellite and the receiver on the ground. The TEC derived from the slant signal path, referred to as the slant TEC (STEC), can be observed and analyzed to identify disturbances associated with the underground nuclear explosion.
STEC signature (in spectral and/or spatial-temporal domains) can be analyzed to detect local traveling ionospheric disturbances (TID).
TID can be excited by acoustic gravity waves from a point source, such as surface or underground explosions, geomagnetic storms, tsunamis, and tropical storms. TIDs can be classified as Large-Scale TID (LSTID) and Medium-Scale TID (MSTID) based on their periods regardless of the generation mechanism. The periods of LSTIDs generally range between 30–60 minutes to several hours, and those of MSTIDs range from 10 to 40 or even 60 minutes. LSTIDs mostly occur from geophysical events, such as geomagnetic storms, which can be indicated by global Kp indices, while MSTIDs are genrally not related to any high score Kp indices. An underground nuclear explosion can result in an MSTID.
TIDs are generated either by internal gravity wave (IGW) or by acoustic gravity wave (AGW). The collisional interaction between the neutral and charged components cause ionospheric responses. The experimental results indicate IGWs can change the ozone concentration in the atmosphere. In the ionosphere, the motion of the neutral gas in the AGW sets the ionospheric plasma into motion.
The AGW changes the iso-ionic contours, resulting in a traveling ionospheric disturbance.
The past 10–15 years has resulted in a significant body of research, and eventually a practical application, with worldwide coverage, of GPS-based ionosphere monitoring. A significant number of International GNSS Service (IGS) permanent GNSS tracking stations (see Figure 2) form a powerful scientific tool capable of near real-time monitoring and detection of various ionospheric anomalies, such as those originating from the underground nuclear explosions (UNEs).
The network is capable of continuously monitoring global ionospheric behavior based on ionospheric delays in the GNSS signals. The GNSS signals are readily accessible anywhere on Earth at a temporal resolution ranging from about 30 seconds up to less than 1 second.
A powerful means to isolate and relate disturbances observed in TEC measurements from different receiver-satellite paths is to analyze the spectral coherence of the disturbances. However, in our algorithms, we emphasize the spatial and temporal relationship among the TEC observations. Spatial and temporal fluctuations in TEC are indicative of the dynamics of the ionosphere, and thus help in mapping TIDs excited by acoustic-gravity waves from point sources, as well as by geomagnetic storms, tropical storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic explosions, and other effects.
Methodology of UNE Detection
Figure 3 illustrates the concept of the generation of the acoustic gravity wave by a UNE event, and its propagation through the ionosphere that results in a traveling ionospheric disturbance (TID). The primary points of our approach are: (1) STEC is calculated from dual-frequency GPS carrier phase data, (2) after eliminating the main trend in STEC by taking the numerical third order horizontal 3-point derivatives, the TIDs are isolated, (3) we assume an array signature of the TID waves, (4) we assume constant radial propagation velocity, vT, using an apparent velocity, vi, of the TID at the ith observing GNSS station, (5) since the TID’s velocity is strongly affected by the ionospheric wind velocity components, vN and vE, in the north and east directions, respectively, the unknown parameters,vT, vN, and vE, can be estimated relative to the point source epicenter, and (6) if more than six GNSS stations in good geometry observe the TID in GNSS signals, the coordinates of the epicenter can also be estimated.
Figure 4 illustrates the geometry of detection of the point source epicenter. Determination of the epicenter of the point source that induced TIDs can be achieved by trilateration, similarly to GPS positioning concept. The TIDs, generated at the point source, propagate at certain speed, and are detected by multiple GPS stations.
The initial assumption in our work was to use a constant propagation velocity of a TID. By observing the time of TID arrival at the ionospheric pierce point (IPP), the travel distance from the epicenter to the IPP of the GPS station that detected a TID (which is the slant distance from the ith station and the kth satellite) can be derived using a relationship with the propagation velocity. In this study, we defined a thin shell in the ionosphere F layer, 300 kilometers above the surface, and computed the IPP location for each GPS signal at the corresponding time epoch of TID detection.
Very Large Array (VLA)
In addition to GNSS-based method of ionosphere monitoring, there are other more conventional techniques, for example, ground-based ionosondes, high-frequency radars, Doppler radar systems, dual-frequency altimeter, and radio telescopes. In our research, we studied the ionospheric detection of UNEs using GPS and the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope.
The VLA is a world-class UHF/VHF interferometer 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. It consists of 27 dishes in a Y-shaped configuration, each one 25 meters in diameter, cycled through four configurations (A, B, C, D) spanning 36, 11, 3.4, and 1 kilometers, respectively. The instrument measures correlations between signals from pairs of antennas, used to reconstruct images of the sky equivalent to using a much larger single telescope. While conducting these observations, the VLA provides 27 parallel lines of sight through the ionosphere toward cosmic sources.
Past studies have shown that interferometric radio telescopes like the VLA can be powerful tools for characterizing ionospheric fluctuations over a wide range of amplitudes and scales. We used these new VLA-based techniques and a GPS-based approach to investigate the signature of a TID originated by a UNE jointly observed by both GPS and the VLA. For this case study, we selected one of the 1992 U.S. UNEs for which simultaneous GPS and VLA data were available.
We summarize here the test studies performed by the OSU group in collaboration with Miami University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory on detection and discrimination of TIDs resulting from UNEs using the GNSS-based and VLA-based techniques. Table 1 lists the UNE events that have been analyzed to date. As of March 2013, the results of the 2013 North Korean UNE were not fully completed, so they are not included here.
In the 2006 and 2009 North Korean UNE experiments, STEC data from six and 11 nearby GNSS stations, respectively, were used. Within about 23 minutes to a few hours since the explosion, the GNSS stations detected the TIDs, whose arrival time for each station formulated the linear model with respect to the distance to the station. TIDs were observed to propagate with speeds of roughly 150–400 m/s at stations about 365 km to 1330 km from the explosion site. Considering the ionospheric wind effect, the wind-adjusted TIDs located the UNE to within about 2.7 km of its seismically determined epicenter (for the 2009 event; no epicenter location was performed for the 2006 event due to insufficient data). The coordinates estimated by our algorithm are comparable to the seismically determined epicenter, with the accuracy close to the seismic method itself. It is important to note that the accuracy of the proposed method is likely to improve if the stations in better geometry are used and more signals affected by a TID can be observed. An example geometry of UNE detection is shown in Figure 5.
For the Hunters Trophy and the Divider UNE tests, the array signature of TIDs at the vicinity of GPS stations was observed for each event. By applying the first-order polynomial model to compute the approximate velocity of TID propagation for each UNE, the data points — that is the TID observations — were fit to the model within the 95 percent confidence interval, resulting in the propagation velocities of 570 m/s and 740 m/s for the Hunters Trophy and the Divider, respectively.
The VLA has observing bands between 1 and 50 GHz, and prior to 2008 had a separate VHF system with two bands centered at 74 and 330 MHz. A new wider-band VHF system is currently being commissioned. The VHF bands and L-band (1.4 GHz) are significantly affected by the ionosphere in a similar way as the GPS signal. In this study, we used VLA observations at L-band of ionospheric fluctuations as an independent verification of the earlier developed method based on the GNSS TID detection for UNE location and discrimination from TIDs generated by other types of point sources.
The VLA, operated as an interfer-ometer, measures the correlation of complex voltages from each unique pair of antennas (baselines), to produce what are referred to as visibilities. Each antenna is pointed at the same cosmic source; however, due to spatial separation, each antenna’s line of sight passes through a different part of the ionosphere. Consequently, the measured visibilities include an extra phase term due to the difference in ionospheric delays, which translates to distortions in the image made with the visibilities. This extra phase term is proportional to the difference in STEC along the lines of sight of the two telescopes that form a baseline. Thus, the interferometer is sensitive to the STEC gradient rather than STEC itself, which renders it capable of sensing both temporal and spatial fluctuations in STEC.
The spectral analysis was performed on the STEC gradients recovered from each baseline that observed the Hunters Trophy event. Briefly, a time series of the two-dimensional STEC gradient is computed at each antenna. Then, a three-dimensional Fourier transform is performed, one temporal and two spatial, over the array and within a given time period (here ~15 minutes). The resulting power spectrum then yields information about the size, direction, and speed of any detected wavelike disturbances within the STEC gradient data.
Roughly 20 to 25 minutes after the UNE, total fluctuation power increased dramatically (by a factor of about 5×103). At this time, the signature of waves moving nearly perpendicular to the direction from Hunters Trophy (toward the northeast and southwest) was observed using the three-dimensional spectral analysis technique. These fluctuations had wavelengths of about 2 km and inferred speeds of 2-8 m s-1. This implies that they are likely due to small-scale distortions moving along the wavefront, not visible with GPS. Assuming that these waves are associated with the arrival of disturbances associated with the Hunters Trophy event, a propagation speed of 570–710 m/s was calculated, which is consistent with the GPS results detailed above.
In addition, a TID, possibly induced by the February 12, 2013, North Korean UNE, was also detected using the nearby IGS stations, by the detection algorithm referred to earlier. Eleven TID waves were found from ten IGS stations, which were located in South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Due to the weakness of the geometry, the epicenter and the ionospheric wind velocity were not determined at this point. The apparent velocity of TID was roughly about 330–800 m/s, and was calculated using the arrival time of the TID after the UNE epoch and the slant distance between the corresponding IPP and the epicenter. The reported explosion yield was bigger, compared to the 2009 North Korean UNE, which possibly affected the propagation velocity by releasing a stronger energy. However, more in-depth investigation of this event and the corresponding GPS data is required.
Research shows that UNEs disturb the ionosphere, which results in TIDs that can be detected by GNSS permanent tracking stations as well as the VLA. We have summarized several GNSS-based TID detections induced by various UNEs, and verified the GNSS-based technique independently by a VLA-based method using the 1992 U.S. UNE, Hunters Trophy. It should be noted that VLA observation was not available during the time of the Divider UNE test; hence, only the Hunters Trophy was jointly detected by GPS and the VLA. Our studies performed to date suggest that the global availability of GNSS tracking networks may offer a future UNE detection method, which could complement the International Monitoring System (IMS).
We have also shown that radio-frequency arrays like the VLA may also be a useful asset for not only detecting UNEs, but for obtaining a better understanding of the structure of the ionospheric waves generated by these explosions. The next generation of HV/VHF telescopes being developed (such as the Lower Frequency Array in the Netherlands, the Long Wavelength Array in New Mexico, the Murchison Widefield Array in Australia) utilize arrays of dipole antennas, which are much cheaper to build and operate and are potentially portable.
It is conceivable that a series of relatively economical and relocatable arrays consisting of these types of dipoles could provide another valuable supplement to the current IMS in the future, particularly for low-yield UNEs that may not be detectable with GPS.
This article is based on a paper presented at the Institute of Navigation Pacific PNT Conference held April 22–25, 2013, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Dorota A. Grejner-Brzezinska is a professor and chair, Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering, and director of the Satellite Positioning and Inertial Navigation (SPIN) Laboratory at The Ohio State University.
Jihye Park recently completed her Ph.D. in Geodetic Science program at The Ohio State University. She obtained her B.A. and M.S degrees in Geoinformatics from The University of Seoul, South Korea.
Joseph Helmboldt is a radio astronomer within the Remote Sensing Division of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Ralph R.B. von Frese is a professor in the Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences of the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State University.
Thomas Wilson is a radio astronomer within the Remote Sensing Division of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Yu (Jade) Morton is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Miami University.